Lee Bontecou


Bontecou Untitled Mfa Houston 1500 - © 2016 Lee Bontecou. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA / Museum purchase funded by D. and J. de Menil / Bridgeman Images
  • Lee Bontecou
  • Untitled
  • 1962
  • Welded steel, epoxy, canvas, fabric, saw blade, and wire
  • 172.7 x 182.9 x 76.2 cm
  • The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of D. and J. de Menil 62.45 - © 2016 Lee Bontecou. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA / Museum purchase funded by D. and J. de Menil / Bridgeman Images

In the late 1950s and ’60s, Lee Bontecou created large-scale sculptures in fabric and metal that blended organic and mechanical forms in immersive, even vertiginous works that often project three-dimensionally into the viewer’s space. She is one of a very small number of women to gain broad recognition as artists during this time, and an even smaller subset of women making large-scale sculpture. Her works of this period have been linked to those by cubist artists of the early twentieth century, but in Bontecou’s work monochromatic, sooty palettes and fragmented spaces evolve into three-dimensional forms.

To make Untitled (1962) Bontecou glued or wired canvas and other fabrics to a welded steel frame. The resulting circular forms jut out and recede around a deep central void, alternately recalling industrial forms – such as jet engines and gas masks of World War II – and wounded bodily forms, replete with stitched skin. Some see her work as gendered, alluding to female genitalia and the birth canal. The artist herself, however, has firmly resisted that interpretation, instead linking the voids in her sculptures to the mysterious, the unknown, and the sublime. Writing in 1963, she explained her intention to “build things that express our relation to this country – to other countries – to this world – to other worlds – in terms of myself. To glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exists in all of us and which hangs over all the young people today.”

Amy Rahn

Biography of Lee Bontecou

  • Born 1931 in Providence, RI, USA
Lee Bontecou trained at the Art Students League in New York from 1952 to 1955. In 1954 she attended the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine and learned to weld. During her stay in Italy from 1957 to 1958 on a Fulbright scholarship she used soot in her drawings for the first time. Upon her return to New York in 1958 she started to experiment with small-scale wall-mounted sculptural assemblages, soon developing her signature style and technique. These constructions, made by fastening fabric to steel fragments that are arranged in swirling forms with dark central voids, evoke technological, mechanical, geological and biological motifs. Bontecou had her first solo show in 1960 at Castelli Gallery in New York. The following year she was included in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her early success led to her withdrawal from the public art sphere in the 1970s. She taught at Brooklyn College from 1971 to 1991 and worked on a new series of art works—large mobile-like sculptures hanging from the ceiling. Together with earlier vacuum-formed plastic sculptures of plants and marine organisms, these “galaxies” made of wire and ceramics mark a completely new approach within her oeuvre.